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'Women's Reservation Bill is a game changer'

Mar 19, 2010

The bill will transform the way in which politics is practiced in India bringing more gender concerns, writes Pamela Philipose. It is no silver bullet for all the problems affecting Indian women, but will help to usher in a substantive equality in the political sphere, she adds.

New Delhi: Nothing symbolises the hierarchy-driven, male-dominated nature of Indian politics at the highest level than the acrimonious 14-year battle to get the Women's Reservation Bill, seeking to reserve 33.3 per cent of seats in Parliament and the state assemblies, into law. In a major step forward, amidst high drama, it got passed in the Rajya Sabha, or Upper House, on March 9 - a historical moment indeed because this is the furthest the controversial Bill has ever got. But formidable hurdles remain.


The Bill's fate in the Lok Sabha, or Lower House, is extremely uncertain. Hysteria has been viewed as a female monopoly, but what can you say when state satraps like Lalu Prasad Yadav, supremo of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, declares that the Bill would pass only over his dead body; or when Mulayam Singh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party, draws up visions of a future dystopia, where only women would reign?

These politicians recognise very clearly that the Bill, if it becomes the law of the land, would shake the ground beneath their feet. What they don't realise is that the times have changed, and that their tired arguments and postures are completely out of sync with a new reality, where tiny Rwanda and even tinier Nepal have, in terms of women's political representation, overtaken a country deemed as the world's largest democracy.

After sixty years of parliamentary democracy, women constitute only 10.8% and 9% of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively. As for the state legislatures, the picture is even more dismal. Take a "progressive" state like Kerala that tops the table when it comes to human development. There are only 7 women in Kerala's legislature of 140 seats. Karnataka fares worse: only 5 women in a House of 224. In Nagaland, there is not a single woman in an Assembly of 60. In Mulayam Singh Yadav's state of Uttar Pradesh, there are 27 women in a House of 403 seats; while in Lalu Prasad Yadav's Bihar, 26 women and 217 men constitute the Assembly.

"Expecting political parties to bring in more women into our legislatures is like asking for the moon"

Zoya Hasan, Professor of Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, put it this way in an interview to WFS, "Expecting political parties to bring in more women into our legislatures is like asking for the moon. This is because party structures are inherently undemocratic, even of those parties headed by women. They have become centralised, criminalised, and oligarchical. They see politics only in terms of male monopolies."

It is this reality that many senior women parliamentarians had hoped to change, when the Bill was presented to Parliament for the first time on September 12, 1996. The late political stalwart and Member of Parliament, Geeta Mukherjee, who had headed the first joint-select committee to examine the Bill - which had incidentally advocated its immediate passage - was so disgusted with the antics of her male colleagues in the Lok Sabha that she had even threatened to resign at one stage. She saw the Bill as an important first step for equal gender participation and said that the issue of making it more representative for the backward classes and minorities can be taken up at an appropriate time.

There have been three significant developments that make Geeta Mukherjee's position even more compelling today. The first, of course, are the commitments that India has made at global fora. At the 1995 Beijing Conference, it had agreed with the other countries of the world that it would "review the differential impact of electoral systems on the political representation of women in elected bodies" and introduce reform. The recent review of the progress since Beijing, conducted by the 54th Commission on the Status of Women, in New York, has ended with a renewed pledge to overcome remaining obstacles to the goals set at Beijing. India, therefore, cannot continue to buck this international agreement without emerging as a laggard state.

Second, the country has already translated into law 50 per cent reservations for women at the level of local government. This means that there will soon be an estimated two million women heading panchayats and municipalities in the country. This number has a certain logic: It makes little sense if there is this groundswell of women's representation at the lowest tiers of government and an impervious status quo at the highest tiers.

"When I walk around the village, I go inside people's homes. Men stop at the door"

The amazing stories of female leadership at the grassroots are the best counter to the common argument that bringing women into higher decision-making would undermine Indian democracy and dilute standards of political representation because women are uninformed and function only as puppets. In fact, as many social theoreticians have argued, bringing women into democracy would democratise all spheres of social life. This is an observation that finds an echo in the revelations of women panchayat leaders, one of whom tellingly observed, "When I walk around the village, I go inside people's homes. Men stop at the door."

There is something potentially transformative in this statement, which is why a canny politician like Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, who had opposed the Women's Bill vehemently all this while, has broken ranks with his own party leadership to support it. This is because he saw the possibility of carving out an electoral constituency for himself through such a move. In a recent interview, he said, "I saw the explosion of energy among women after we introduced 50% reservation for women at the local level. They now want greater participation in the legislative process. This changed my views on the Bill."

This brings us to the third argument. The Women's Bill is a game changer. It will transform the way in which politics is practised in the country. It will force politicians to speak a more current political language, articulate fresh concerns and create new political constituencies. This should, in turn, bring many gender concerns that have been sidelined for so long, into the mainstream political space.

The Women's Reservation Bill is no silver bullet for all the problems affecting Indian women today, and neither would it seamlessly translate into a more gender-friendly political dispensation. The rotation of seats with every election, in the interests of ensuring that every constituency in the country will have gender-based reservations over the 15-year lifespan of the Bill, will undoubtedly be unsettling. But there can also be no denying that the Bill, even in its present form, is a valuable tool to go beyond a formal equal treatment of the sexes that keeps old disadvantages intact, and help usher in a substantive equality in the political sphere.

Professor Hasan put it this way, "There are many imponderables about this Bill. It is, at one level, a gamble. But it is a gamble eminently worth taking."

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